NAB is locked in a legal battle over its university placement scheme.
NAB is locked in a legal battle over its university placement scheme.

NAB intern ‘couldn’t afford food’

A FORMER Melbourne university student claims NAB paid him below the minimum wage under a "sham" internship program, leaving him unable to afford "basic necessities like food".

Daniel Stuart is suing the bank over a 52-week "Industry Based Learning" placement he undertook as part of his Bachelor of Business Information Systems degree at Swinburne University of Technology in 2015.

Mr Stuart, who was 23 at the time, alleges he was paid just $32,000 for 52 weeks' full-time work - equating to an hourly rate of $16.13 - and received no superannuation, despite students placed in other companies under the IBL program receiving proper award rates and super.

"I was forced to seek funds from family for a medical procedure, could not afford basic necessities like food, petrol for the car and more," Mr Stuart said in an email. He is seeking $15,729 in alleged underpaid wages and $4772 in unpaid superannuation, plus interest.

In his statement of claim lodged with the Federal Circuit Court in Melbourne, Mr Stuart alleges the role did not satisfy the definition of a vocational placement under the Fair Work Act, in that it was optional, provided no credit towards his course and was advertised as a "paid placement" by the university.

During the placement, he was "onboarded" with a laptop, ID pass and desk phone, worked standard 40-hour weeks of 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday and performed "productive work" for NAB including updating the corporate intranet site, rewriting user guides for technology equipment, designing internal reports, scheduling staff training sessions and offering general tech support.

The lawsuit claims NAB attempted to disguise the employment relationship as a vocational placement by including "unconscionable clauses" in its contract stating he was "not an employee" of NAB and was "not entitled to any payment of wages or salary".

The $32,000 was not paid by NAB directly to Mr Stuart but instead as a "gift" to Swinburne, which then paid fortnightly in the form of a tax-free scholarship.

"It appears that NAB has been - and potentially still is - hiring students to fulfil the same role as an employee, attempting to disguise the arrangements as being a vocational placement when they do not meet the definition under the Act, and facilitating a substantial gift to Swinburne for each resource it secures, all while Swinburne is not awarding any educational benefit to a course of study," Mr Stuart said.

He said it was "essentially a three-pronged scheme of sham vocational placements designed to provide Swinburne with a financial incentive for provisioning human resources to NAB", which was "profiting substantially" by using students to perform the same role as an employee at less than half the award rate.

"[This] will impact dozens of individuals that have worked at NAB and will be a major case regarding the nature of exploitative arrangements like internships and work experience programs that contribute no progress towards a course of study," he said.

In its defence filed this month, NAB denied that the student placement deed referred to Mr Stuart "working" for NAB and instead "provided for the conditions that applied to the applicant while he was completing a 'placement at [NAB's] business', such placement being defined as 'the undertaking of work experience and/or practical training'".

It argued that by executing the deed, he acknowledged and agreed that "the purpose of the placement is to provide you with practical experience and training", that "during the placement you are not an employee or contractor of NAB" and he was "not entitled to any payment of wages or salary, or any other payment, for any service you provide in the course of the placement".

NAB said under its agreement with Swinburne, it provided "work experience relevant to the particular student's degree and at a level of difficult appropriate to the student's knowledge, experience and training".

The same agreement stated that the "gift" provided to the university "does not constitute a payment to the university for any student placement" and the university was "solely responsible for determining how the gift amount will be used".

The bank said it did not know and could not admit any of the claims relating to the alleged advertising of the program by the university, but argued students received a pass-fail mark for the IBL placement and so it was undertaken as a requirement of Mr Stuart's degree.

It said during the placement, Mr Stuart was "taught how teams operate", "supported [in] the development" of his technical and analytical skills and taught "change management techniques".

NAB said he gained skills and experience through the program including "professional development training coursework", "face-to-face learning sessions", "SharePoint site design and development", "website content development and management" and "management and improvement of online feedback, support mailbox and internal social media channels".

"The applicant did not suffer any loss or damage and is not entitled to any relief from NAB," the defence said. Mr Stuart has until May 25 to file any reply to the defence. The case has been set down for mediation hearing next month.

While the bank would not comment on an ongoing legal matter, a NAB spokesman said, "NAB has a process for managing university student placements, aimed at ensuring the placements benefit the students and provide industry-based learning appropriate for their courses."

A spokeswoman for Swinburne University of Technology said, "As this matter is currently before the Federal Court, the university is unable to make comment at this time."